Tuesday, September 4, 2018

It Can't Be About Me: A Reflection on Priesthood

One of the greatest errors most people make is in trying to make their lives about themselves. Such a dank existence revolves around trying to fill an insatiable hole with an array of self-serving appetites, self-centered pleasure, and a unquenchable desire for attention. Those around such a person are caught up in trying to please a person who cannot be pleased unless they are endlessly adored and obeyed without dissent.

Clergy of every level are not exempt from such temptations. In fact, by virtue of the office they hold, an unspoken presumption of unwavering obedience seems built in. Priesthood can be a dangerous place for a narcissist.

Priesthood, live correctly, points away from the priest. He values leading in order to serve, not to rule. As a priest, I take my cues from Jesus and the Blessed Mother. Jesus says of Himself that He came to serve, not to be served and to give his life as a ransom for the many. He who is the Incarnate God says such about Himself. How can I as a priest of Jesus Christ say anything more about myself? There is no room for princes here, only servants. The Blessed Mother proclaims herself the servant of the Lord, offering herself to God's will.  She tells the servants at Cana to do what Jesus tells them to do. Should not such a disposition be my own in how I guide a parish?!

To whit: at Mass the focus should not be on me as a priest. Nor should it be on the congregation. We do not come to Mass to worship either the priest or the congregation. We come to worship God. As a priest, I am not called to be a master showman.  If I do so, I am removing the focus from God to me. Make no mistake, this is mortally dangerous.

Why? Because if my words do not point to Christ, I become a hindrance to salvation. At best I am an irritating gong belching pablum. At worst, I am a demonic lacky spreading seeds of confusion and rebellion in the garden of the Lord. If my actions are the theological equivalent of giant neon sign begging the observer to be entertained by my grand showmanship, I am taking your focus away from what can and does save you. It is Christ's sacrifice on the Cross that brings the possibility of salvation.  It is the giving of His Flesh and Blood through the Eucharist that breathes life into you. My job as a priest is to point there by word and action.

I will assure you if a cleric makes it about himself at Mass, an act of supreme arrogance,  he will make it about himself everywhere. He will compromise faith to get the desired self-satisfying lauds of praise for his derring do. He will rebel against authority whilst demanding unswerving obedience to all he says. It is in this dangerous ground that the seeds of scandal will be planted and harvested. As with anyone,  his appetites will be unquenchable and the attempt to quench them, no matter how sinful and scandalous, will be justified every single step of the way.

It is for all these reasons that Jesus pleads for disciples to embrace humility. Humility informs us that only God can fill the sum of all our desires. No amount of money, praise, attention,  sex, pleasure, or numbing agents can fill our need. The humble priest knows that if his words and actions do not point to Christ,  then he is a danger to his flock. He knows only with God's grace can he lead. He fears not anger. He knows doing and saying the right thing might well bring on anger. It did in the life of Jesus.

So many of the problems the Church has suffered over two millennia can be laid at the feet of clerics who made it about themselves. If we are to turn things around, all of us, lay and clergy, must live lives that point away from ourselves and point to Christ.  I say both because it has been from the ranks of the laity that have come the clergy. I am fond of reminding people that I did not emerge from my mother's womb at the age of 31 wearing a Roman Collar.  For the first 30 of those years I was a layperson. Teach humility in the home.  Live humility in the home. Seminaries are not magic shows. They can only form what is given them. Send in a strong man...a humble man...and despite the seminary he goes to, he comes a strong and humble priest. That strong humble priest will serve well, for he won't make the priesthood about himself.


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A Wary Shepherd



Being a shepherd isn't easy.

A shepherd is not always the owner of the sheep.  He must take care of the sheep as the owner of the sheep desires.  He must feed the sheep what and where the owner wants them to eat. He must remember he is answerable for the sheep entrusted to him.

A shepherd must be aware that predators want to devour his flock.  They want to gorge themselves on every single ewe and lamb. In fact, the wolves would like to make a meal of the shepherd as well. A strong shepherd they will fear.  A weak shepherd they will target.

A shepherd must be aware that the wolves would like him to become like them so that they may prey freely on the flock.  They will welcome a shepherd who preys on the flock as well. They will encourage the shepherd to prey on his own flock without compunction.  If the wolves cannot co-op the shepherd to prey on his own flock, then they will look to destroy him.

The shepherd must know the wolves are wise and wily. They will do their best to fool the sheep into a false sense of security. They will encourage them to wander far from the flock. The shepherd must  train the sheep to listen to his voice and trust him over the wolves. The shepherd must be on guard against the wolves for his own good and good of the flock.

The shepherd must take the flock where the owner wants.  He must trust that where the owner wants the flock to be is to the benefit of all. The shepherd must lead through verdant meadows and craggy mountain passes.  He must keep sure of his own footing and be attentive to the footing of the flock, especially those who find the more difficult parts of the path too hard. With adept skill, a wary shepherd negotiates the most treacherous of trails and trains his flock to do the same.

The shepherd must be cautious of what the sheep consume.  Pretty flowers can oftentimes be toxic poisons. He must steer his flock away from what is toxic lest they become fitting prey for the wolves.  He must also avoid eating what is toxic, lest while in a diminished state the ever-present wolves snatch members of the flock or attack him.

The shepherd must also be aware of other shepherds. He must be able to tell the difference between a shepherd who is good at being a shepherd, a shepherd who bad at being a shepherd, and a wolf dressed as a shepherd. He must not allow the poor example of poor shepherds or the nefarious example of wolves in shepherd's clothing cause him to despair, compromise, or abandon his post.

Finally, the shepherd must know he represents to the owner of the flock.  The flock will presume that the shepherd is doing what the owner wants.  His diligence, care, protection, and skill point beyond himself and to the owner of the flock.

Bishops and priest are shepherds of a flock that belongs to Christ.  He calls us to be these wary, skilled, protective, and wise men who will be good at shepherding.  Parents are those shepherds, especially dads, of the flock entrusted to them in their spouse and children.  Christ has the same expectation of parents in regards to their families as he does pastors and bishops of his churches.

When we shepherds fall short of our duties, we allow our flocks to be picked off. We invite the wolves in to prey of the flock. Or abandon the flock and our flocks suffer greatly.  As the flock assigned us--- be it a bishop to a diocese, a pastor to his parish, or a parent to their spouse and children--- is not ours but God's first.  We are held accountable to Christ for what we did with his flock.  We must cultivate virtue in each of us to be those who are good at shepherding.  We must cultivate them in the lambs as they will one day share in that role of  that shepherding. One cannot prey on the lambs and train simultaneously  the lambs to be good shepherds.

One of the primary reasons Camp Maccabee was founded was to train men to be good shepherds.  To be a man who is good at shepherding, one must pursue virtue, holiness, and be a reflection of the Good Shepherd to that part of the flock of Christ entrusted to him. In an age where we see the fallout and grievous damage of bad shepherds, we don't abandon the flock, we raise up good shepherds will lead their flocks as Christ, the Good Shepherd, would have it done.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Walking on the Via Dolorosa: Scandal and Betrayal in our Church

The Church in the United States is in troubled times.  Truth be told, she has been for decades. As we stand on the shore looking at what might be the outer bands of a category 5 hurricane, looking around us and wondering what we will left standing once the storm has passed, and looking with worry on how things will be rebuilt, it is easy and understandable that many might rage at this storm.  Once again, we walk the Via Dolorosa (the way of Sorrow...the Way of the Cross) as we pass through this scandal.

Feeling Desecrated

On the night of July 23rd, 2016, while I pastor of St. Clement Church in Bowling Green Mo, my parish church was desecrated. A person had entered the church with bags of human feces and smeared them on the altar, lectern, confessionals, statue of the Blessed Mother, baptismal font, presider's chair tabernacle, and managing to find the key to the tabernacle, mixed it with the Blessed Sacrament.  She had poured wine on the vestments, threw unconsecrated bread on floor, poured out the Holy Oils into the carpet, and desecrated the Holy water.  It was a surgical attack.

I was away from the parish running Camp Maccabee. When the sheriff called (he is a parishioner) and told me what had happened, it was like getting hit by a car at full speed.  My bishop told me to stay where I was for the media would be besieging the place and the church could not be used for any sacrament until the desecration was addressed. It was the longest week of my life.  When I returned home, I mourned.  I wrote on this blog a posts called "The Long Good Friday."  On the following Saturday, a minor exorcism, Mass of reparation, and re-consecration took place so that the Masses for the weekend could take place back in the church.

I was blown away by the immediate response of my flock.  I cannot imagine the violation and grief they felt coming into the church that Sunday morning and finding things as they were.  Never being presented with such a thing in my priesthood, I knew what words I would say could make or break things.  I prayed intensely, asking for guidance.  I wrote about caution and mercy in the face of such great evil.  Word started getting back to me that almost all of my parishioners were already looking to being merciful. As details unfolded about the soul who did this, we found out it was not a stranger.  The person was Catholic, but also was practicing Wicca. There was mental illness involved. We had helped this lady on multiple occasions.    It hurt.

I remember in one of the conversations I had with the bishop at the time, Bishop John Gaydos.  I remember him clearly telling me not to allow this to change me or my parish to the negative. The devil will use tragedy to plant seeds of white hot hatred and a burning desire for vengeance. When the church was exorcised, the reparations made, and the Blessed Sacrament restored to His rightful home, it was like a intense darkness had been lifted.  Praying before the Blessed Sacrament after the Eucharistic Procession around the exterior and interior of the Church, I wept with joy that the darkness was gone.

Some of my parishioners offered to raise bail money for the woman and we started the process for attaining the ability to absolve (must come from Rome as to absolve for desecration of the Blessed Sacrament must be granted by the Holy See).  Unfortunately, the woman committed suicide before that could happen.

Feeling Desecrated Again

 When we read through the Pennsylvania's Attorney General's Grand Jury Report, it like reading a description of hell. As the sins of a high ranking American prelate are exposed and the attendant cover-up by those who knew is also exposed, it is easy for those who love the Church to feel as if we are walking through a desecrated church. These activities are as unwelcome and heinous within the church as the human feces were in the parish church of St. Clement. The smell is equally sickening.  The feelings of rage, fury, anger, and wrath from those who love the Church are warranted.  However, what happened at St. Clement might well be a tutorial for how to handle this crisis.

Cleaning up the feces

The parishioners had a disagreeable task that Sunday morning.  They came to worship God, but they now had to clean up human feces smeared on their beloved church and in the Blessed Sacrament. It was nasty work.  However, the first stage of healing was cleaning up. The fecal matter was removed. Items that were beyond repair (Roman Missal, Lectionary, some clothes, and Ciborium) were set aside so that they could be buried in the cemetery later. Vestments were sent to the cleaners.  The only visible scar was where the oils had been poured into the carpet.  Despite best efforts, it could not be removed.

Likewise, we have to remove what has been desecrated.   That will take a thorough cleaning of sins we have allowed to reside in our church for generations.  These actions came as a result of beliefs.  Tolerance of sinfulness, especially in regards to human sexuality, led to the mentality that made it seem that molestation of children (mostly boys), abuse of power over seminarians and young priests, and that when caught, thought as merely unfortunate, that it must be covered up led to a toxic atmosphere that brought great darkness. This tolerance of sinfulness spilled into every avenue of church life.  the same hands doing these nefarious things were the same hands that presided at Mass.  These were the same hands that taught, preached, and led flocks. This tolerance of sinfulness must be expunged from our midst, as disagreeable a task as it might be, just as the remnants of the desecration had to be done.

This will require must self-reflection on the part of many.  It will hurt.  It will smell. But it must be done.

However expunging this will not be enough.

Exorcising and Reparation

Just as my parish Church had to be exorcized and reparations for the grievous sin against the Blessed Sacrament had to be made, so to must any and all influence of the devil must be exorcized from our church and reparations must be made to address in justice these sinful acts.

I see many articles screaming for heads.  Maybe these people resign.  I don't know.  If they do or don't can not stop all of us from calling for and acting upon the removal of the false teachings, lax morality, and acceptance of deviant behavior that got us here.  I really believe that the loss of transcendence (not called for by Vatican II or the General Instruction of the Roman Missal) and Faustian deal struck with the world's morality paired with a complete dismissal of the devil, demonic forces, and entities left us collectively open to these attacks.  We must rebuild the ramparts against these attacks knowing that the devil has not one intention of doing anything but stepping up his attacks.

Reparations to God must be made.  Whether by neglect, leaving ourselves open, acceptance of evil, or turning a blind eye to evil, we have neglected and abused the great gift given us by Christ in His bride. Many are calling for the bishops to collectively make reparations and penance.  That is appropriate.  However, as St. Paul reminds us that when one part of the body suffers, all suffer. Many are in the midst of a Novena Rosary that started on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and ends with the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (Oct. 7th).  Perhaps joining ourselves to this as an act of reparation for this country and our church in this country might well achieve such an end.  Details can be found at  www.romancatholicman.com/54-day-rosary-novena-for-our-nation-august-15-october-7/  . We all have a vested interest in doing our part towards the exorcising and reparations of our Church.

Final Thoughts

How my parish handled the desecration said much about who they are.  Although I would never wish for such to ever happen, the desecration told me they were in a good place, that wanting to live the Gospel in the most heartbreaking of circumstance was desired, and they ended up stronger for having gone through such a crucible.  They made their Via Dolorosa in those dark days.  But we all know the story of Christ doesn't end with the Cross of the tomb.  It continues on through the Resurrection and Ascension.

The hurricane will pass. There will be damage.  We will have to rebuild.

We will have to make this Via Dolorosa.  Each step will test us.  Let us not lose sight nor hope on where the road eventually leads.  Christ defeated the devil through the Cross. We will also defeat the devil by carry this cross as Christ carried His.  We will have to exercise forgiveness and mercy from our cross as Christ did from His.  It will be difficult.

My parish ended stronger after their Via Dolorosa.  The Catholic Church in this country can be stronger when this is done.  It all hinges on our decisions and reactions.  Just remember, none of the other apostles walked away from Christ because of the sins of Judas.  Neither can we walk away from following Christ because of the Judases in out church home.  Virtue in the face of vice must be how we handle this desecration of the Church in our country.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Pentecost


This last week we had our confirmation Mass for the 10 juniors who got confirmed this year.  In his homily, Bishop Shawn McKnight reminded those being confirmed that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were not being given to them for their own good, but for the good of all.  This certainly is in line with the teaching of Jesus Christ. When sending out the disciples to prepare the way for Him, He tells them, “Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) It is easy to have a merit badge mentality about the sacraments. We go through preparation and classes and at the end receive the sacrament almost as a graduation certificate.  This accounts for why so many bail on the practice of the faith upon receiving whatever sacrament it be until it is time to receive the next sacrament.  If we go to that first outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we can plainly see that the gifts of grace given through the sacraments are not ordered merely for the good of the person receiving them.

Out Into the Streets

                In the Acts of the Apostles 2:1-40, we hear of that first outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the immediate effects that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit had on the apostles and those gathered in the Upper Room.  At the Ascension, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would be sent to the Apostles and disciples as they were to continue the mission He started.  For 10 days they waited in the Upper Room, the location of the Last Supper, in watchful prayer waiting for that gift of the Holy Spirit. 

                Upon the reception of the Holy Spirit, the apostles and disciples immediately leave the Upper Room to head into the streets of Jerusalem and boldly proclaim the Gospel.  St. Peter, who only 53 days earlier had thrice denied knowing Jesus, now boldly proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  He urges those hearing him to be stirred to belief in Christ.  The gift given to St. Peter and those gathered in the Upper Room was given because they had a mission to do.  From Pentecost on, the Apostles and disciples would fan out through the known world to proclaim the Gospel.  For nearly two millennia, Catholics had gone to the four corners of the world, to almost every tribe and nation, to proclaim the Gospel. Many would give their lives in this proclamation.  Some still do to this day.

A Public and not Private Faith

                As with those in the Upper Room, so with us.  In every sacrament we are given something of the Holy Spirit.  Certainly in confirmation we are given this Holy Spirit in very explicit way.  However, all sacraments are made present to us through the working of the Holy Spirit.  No more than the gifts of the Holy Spirit were treated as a private devotion or merit badge by those first Christians can it be treated so by us.  Through the working of the Holy Spirit, we are to be every bit the agent for radical change to this culture that St. Peter and those in the Upper Room were to the city of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. No more than the Apostles could remain in the Upper Room on the day of Pentecost can we stay in the shadows in our own day.

                The Catholic faith is meant by its very nature to be sign to the world.  We are to stick out as different to the cultures in which we live.  We are to be champions for those in need, for the defenseless, for the searching, and for the poor. Our morals are not to be shaped by worldly morals.  In the Great High Priest Prayer of John 17: 1-26, Jesus prays on the night of the Last Supper that the Church He is about to found through His own Flesh and Blood would recognize the uniqueness of what is to happen.  He reminds us that we are not of this world. We live in the world and cultures in which we find ourselves, but we are to be bold witnesses in each and every one of those cultures.  When we don’t, we fall into the sin of Laodicea: lukewarmness.  The natural byproduct of lukewarmness is a Catholic whose life is indistinguishable from the culture in which we live.  It is this blandness of faith, this wasting of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus finds so repugnant that He vomits it from His mouth (Rev 3:16).

                Because so many Catholics have turned a public faith to a private hobby, we have lost ground in our culture.  From the breakdown of the family, to the disrespect for human life in all stages, to the approval of the gross misuse of human sexuality, to the falling practice of the faith, to the dropping of priestly and religious vocation, Catholicism has ceded ground in the name of getting along in our society.  Our mission, as Catholics, is to infuse the gifts of the Holy Spirit into the culture around us.

                Where there is ignorance, we use the gift of wisdom. Where there is bias and prejudice, we use the gift of understanding. Where there is doubt, we use the gift of counsel. Where there are lies and propaganda, we use the gift of knowledge. Where there compromise, we use the gift of piety. Where there is rebellion, we use the gift of the fear of the Lord. Where there is fear, we use the gift of fortitude.  None of these gifts are given us to be stored as trophies to gather dust.  They are given to us to effect positive change in the culture around us.  Our faith is not a trophy nor a pious hobby, but an active agent for true and lasting change in our world.

Forging Ahead

                These gifts of the Holy Spirit are given for the purpose of the Mission of Jesus Christ to make known the Gospel, and this is to greatly inform the direction, institutions, and mission of this parish.  It is my job as pastor to commandeer all of these and order them to the mission of Jesus Christ. Our ability to do this can be concretely measured in visible criteria.  All of our educational apparatuses are to be changed so as to be unapologetically orthodox in teaching.  Along with this honing of our educational systems, we will be teaching the necessary wisdom and charity to apply these teachings so as to provoke conversion.  Alongside of this, I wish to see our parish profile be more public in the community in which we live. I will also be provoking people to make our faith public in how they set their priorities.  This is especially true with how priorities are set for their children!

                The gifts of the Holy Spirit bear fruit.  Abandoning lukewarmness for the fervor of the Gospel bears fruit.  Measurable criteria include Mass attendance, participation in various educational programs and social outreach, and most strongly in being a parish that produces priestly and religious vocations.  I end with this: In Luke 12:49, Jesus says, “I came to set the world afire, how I wish it were already kindled.” To live as Christ seeks demands we leave the lukewarmness of Laodicea behind and embrace the fire of that first Pentecost! Pentecost is considered the birth of the Church, it becomes the template by we are measured.

       

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Lukewarm Parishes Part 4


The second recommendation of Jesus to the Church of Laodicea to correct their lukewarm nature was to “buy white garments in which to be clothed, if the shame of your nakedness is to be covered.” (Rev 3:18) Laodicea was well known in the cloth trade.  Its cloths were made of the dark wool of the sheep raised in the region.  It would seem madness from this vantage point to bleach the local wool to a bright white.  The ears of the Laodiceans who first heard this message would well understand what was being asked.

Standing Out, Not Blending In

                To understand what makes lukewarmness so very tempting is to understand that lukewarmness is the temperature of compromise.  Lukewarmness lacks the fiery heat of passion or the icy cold of hatred.  It blends into whatever is around it.  It is a spiritual chameleon. The lukewarm do not like to stick out.  Playing it safe is the goal of the lukewarm.  The huge problem with this is that they drift where the society drifts.  They adopt externally, at least, whatever the surrounding culture adopts. They either adopt or sit in silence.  Either way they refuse to stick out.

                For the Church of Laodicea, being part of the Roman Empire, there was a vested interest in blending into the populace.  So much of what Christianity embraced was in direct opposition to the Greco-Roman culture and Rule of Law.  Concepts we take for granted such as the dignity of the human person, family life, the role of government, the role of religion, human sexuality, and other items were viewed radically different from the morals and ways of governance of the Roman Empire.  In the face of such things, the Laodiceans took the position with their Christian faith to hold internally to Christian beliefs, do only what was safe, and then publicly hold a different stance from their internal beliefs.

                Spiritual lukewarmness leads to the same deal with the devil.  It is the all too common “I am personally opposed but…” deal where a compartmentalization of the person comes into play.  Lukewarmness leads to that wiggle room that allows a cafeteria approach to faith.  There are certainly a boatload of issues that our popular culture takes offense at with the Church to this day.  In fact, let’s be honest, it still is same list as before: the dignity of the human person (especially in abortion), family life, the role the government, the role of religion, human sexuality, and so on.  In our own country, to hold morals contrary to the popular morals leads to derision, ridicule, and other forms of public humiliation.  In other areas of the world it can lead to imprisonment, lawsuits, suspension of human rights, and in some areas, death.    

                Yet in all of this, Christ wants us to stick out.  He wants us to be as different in appearance to the world as we are belief.  This is threatening.  It is worth noting that in the Roman Empire, despite sporadic and intense persecutions over three centuries, the Christians grew from a handful of believers measured in the hundreds to a dominant faith numbering in the millions.  It did this without returning violence for violence or persecution for persecution.  They stood out.  They stood tall. They held their ground.  They won the day.

With Clear Sight

                Finally, Jesus tells them to “buy ointment to smear on your eyes, if you would see once more.”  Again, to the Laodiceans, this would sound familiar.  According to Greek historian Strabo, there was a medical school in Laodicea.  In the region was a key ingredient used in eye lotions.  Jesus compares their lukewarmness to a blurred vision.  Perhaps the lack of fire in their faith comes from a willful resistance to see the truth of the Gospel. The Church of Laodicea does not see themselves as in such a state as Jesus does.  In verse 17 of the same chapter, earlier Jesus says, “You keep saying, “I am so rich and secure and I want for nothing.” Little do you realize how wretched you are, how pitiable and poor, how blind and naked!” 

                Jesus tells his disciples, “The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)  Clear vision is necessary for conversion.  As individuals and as a parish, we need to ask ourselves in all honesty as to whether we effectively witness to those in our lives and to the community as a whole.  The clearest place to see this in our personal lives is the list of priorities we set in our life and why we choose one thing over another.

                Our Christian ancestors were willing to risk everything to follow Christ.  They left all manner of safety, security, comfort, and convenience behind.  Even today, many in our world are made to make the same choices. Their courage should encourage us. 

                To be blunt: when we make choices between faith and other things, who wins?  Is faith something we fit into the rest of our schedule?  Do we drop Mass when it becomes inconvenient to other things going on?  Do we feel compelled to take on a worldly moral just to keep the peace?  Do we adopt a worldly moral because it is more convenient to our lives?  Do we resent a teaching of Christ because to accept it means to take a unpopular stance? Does a worldly way of looking at life influence our faith (political party for example) or do we seek to use our faith to influence society?  Do we compromise some elements of the faith to move ahead?  Do we teach our children that faith, the practice of faith, or the deepening of faith all take a back seat to getting ahead in this world?  Do we prioritize sports, leisure, work, entertainment, and such over our faith?  The more we answer yes, the more lukewarm we are.  Remember, again, that Jesus finds lukewarmness so revolting that He spews it out of His mouth.  Can we be spewed from the mouth of Christ and still enter heaven?

Lukewarm Parishes Part 3


In the Book of Revelations, when Jesus is speaking to the Church of Laodicea, He is speaking to a single parish in modern terminology. The parish of Laodicea has become lukewarm.  They enjoy tremendous wealth and are spared the persecution many of their sister parishes in the same region are undergoing. The lukewarm nature of Laodicea is so revolting to Jesus that He says He spews it from his mouth.  However, He gives them three ways by which to rectify their revolting situation. 

“But From Me Gold Refined by Fire”

                Jesus’ first antidote to their disease of lukewarmness is to “buy from me gold refined by fire if you would be truly rich.”  Mind you, they are already fiscally rich.  But Jesus sees them as spiritually poor. He encourages them to seek spiritual wealth.  Their wealth, though, comes from “gold refined by fire.”

                When gold is mined, it is not pure.  Grains of dirt and other impurities exist within the nugget.  For gold to be refined, it must be heated up to melting.  In that stressing of the gold, the impurities are burned off and all that remains is the gold.  Unlike the other churches/parishes in the area, Laodicea is spared persecution from outside. The external sources which would help to purify them are not there as they are in other areas. 

Not much has changed over two thousand years. There are Catholic parishes around the world where the Church is being persecuted by outside sources.  One can look to Mexico, where drug cartels are killing priests (two in last few weeks) while they are getting ready for Mass or hearing confessions. One can look at Nigeria, where, again, this last weekend, two priests and numerous parishioners were murdered in an attack.  In this country, we have no such attacks taking place.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t attacks.

Our attacks are much more subtle but every bit as potent.  For Laodicea, their attachment to the wealth and other benefits they enjoyed became the source of their lukewarmness. When I do not have to choose God or something else at the point of a sword, it is much easier to not choose God. The pressure to choose other than God comes from a desire towards the things of this world.  That desire leads to a constant compromise of matter of God and faith.  Priorities follow suit. Faith gets reduced to “putting in my time” at Mass (maybe…unless something else more important comes along).  The more we compromise, the more lukewarm we become.  We know from this passage that Jesus finds such lukewarmness revolting enough to want to vomit from His mouth. What then is this “gold refined by fire?”  Where do we get it?  How do we get it?

Refined by Fire

                In these simple words, Jesus is telling us that we must be purified as gold is.  That is not easy. In fact, the refining process essentially changes the gold nugget.  By the same token, the refining or purifying process means a drastic change.  To those who understand the language of the Church, this should be no surprise.  During the liturgical season of Lent, we focus on the purifying elements.  In embracing fasting, abstinence, prayer and alms-giving, these become the fire by which we become purified.  All of these speak to an idea important to purification and refining: detachment.  The gold cannot hold onto its imperfections and debris and still become pure. These spiritual practices, while highlighted during Lent, are not exclusive to Lent.   In detachment from the things of this world, we learn proper use of these things and where on the scale of priority they should actually be. Detachment leads to a proper re-ordering of our lives toward God and shakes off the grime of lukewarmness.

                Notice though, that Jesus tells us to “buy from me”  this gold.   It is more than our own efforts.  We need the grace of God to do any of this.  God gives us the grace to build the virtues of prudence (knowing how apply wisdom to choices and priorities) and temperance (self-control).  God gives us a forge to purify ourselves of lukewarmness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Part of that sacrament is the desire to amend one’s life and to use the grace of God to not go back to the trough from which one just repented. Reconciliation, like all avenues of grace, is to disrupt this path of lukewarmness.  However, to disrupt that path necessitates choosing a better, more worthy path.

Refining is Difficult

                To leave lukewarmness behind means an essential change of priorities.  If we are to change these priorities, it will make us stick out.  This is why it is difficult and does court a degree of persecution through ridicule or persecution.  It comes in the form of a young man I know who had to choose between weekend Mass and a job that constantly and intentionally prevented him from going to Mass. It comes in the form of a teen I knew that to go to church youth events meant being threatened with his starting spot on a team (the coach was Catholic…let that sink in).  It comes in the form of a young lady having to choose being with her friends for a party or attending a necessary workshop to work with youth in the parish.  It comes in the form of a sports family who makes the effort to go to Mass while on the road, even when they are the only ones of their group that do.  It is all about the hard choices.

                The lukewarm or cold will immediately go to that which compromises the practice of faith.  Sometimes the choice results in good.  The young man quit his job and found a better job.  Sometimes it is difficult.  The teen did lose his starting position. He became a better man for it.  The lukewarm will look for an excuse, the courageous will stand tall.

                Our own willingness to stand tall in the midst of this refinement becomes a lesson for those placed in their care.  Lukewarm parents will usually (not always) raise lukewarm children at best or kids that just abandon faith altogether at worst.  Part of parenting is to expose that life is full of hard choices and what one chooses as priorities says much to the character of the person.  Our choices, when it comes to our Catholic faith, either expose a fire from within for God or expose a lukewarmness that places faith and God as a lesser priorities.  Maybe it is that flavor of playing second fiddle to the world that makes Christ want to spew us from His mouth.

                Christ doesn’t ask of us what He Himself has not given.  In His proclamation of the Gospel He gives us a way of life.  In His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, He makes clear that we were so much a first priority that He is willing to pour out His own life for us.  In the constant access He gives us to the Holy Spirit, especially in the sacraments, He makes clear how much He wants to be a part of our lives.  In the face of such love, we can now see why such lukewarmness would be revolting and offensive to Jesus?

Thursday, April 26, 2018

I'm Not Being Fed!!!!

I have heard this phrase bandied about many times well before I was Catholic (1977).  I have heard it said by every type of Christian.  I have heard Catholics say it. I have heard every type of Protestant say it.  I have heard Orthodox say it.

I understand the frustration that usually lies behind it.  It can mean a variety of things though.  It can mean I am not being told THE truth. I can mean I am not being entertained.  It can mean I am being challenged and I don't like it.  It can mean I am being spiritually malnourished.  It can mean I am getting real food when I want junk food and candy.

This post has a narrow intended audience.  I t is written for Catholics.  One might be able to extrapolate parts for one's own church, but I am aiming at Catholics.

You are being fed...maybe

I want to start with a very basic premise.  If you are a Catholic in a state of grace, you are being fed every time you do go to Mass. The primary feeding does not come in the form of well-executed liturgy, nor truth filled preaching, nor in great music necessarily.  These are the work of man.  The primary feeding comes from what Jesus Christ offers in the giving of His Flesh and Blood in the Eucharist.  In John 6:55, Jesus proclaims, "For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink." If one is in a state of grace, one does not leave the Catholic Church without being fed what is the real food we need...maybe.

Maybe?  Yes.  Maybe.  Every sacrament has what is called form and matter.  The form are the words used and the matter are the things used. To change the form or matter invalidates the sacrament. For example, the priest changes the words of the Institution Narrative of the Eucharistic Prayer changes the form of the Mass and can invalidate the sacrament.  In other words, you do not receive the Body of Christ; you receive bread.  The true feeding you need is not done. If something other than unleavened wheat bread (in the Roman Rite) is used, it invalidates the sacrament.  The addition of honey, other grains, and leaven are prohibited in the Latin Rite. Such abuses should be reported immediately to the Diocesan Bishop as Catholics who are free to receive the Eucharist to have a right to the Eucharist.  Clerics do not possess the authority to change either the form or matter of any sacrament.  The General Instruction of the Roman Missal makes this clear in section 24, " However, the Priest will remember that he is the servant of the Sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass."

If the form and matter is properly done, even if the priest is not a holy man, then one is fed at Mass.  One is fed even of the homily is horrible.  One is fed even if the music is wretched.  One is fed even if the priest goes 100 MPH.  In the end, the Sacraments is the work of Christ and His Church.  The real food needed comes from Christ.  Believe me, though, I am not letting those, clergy and laity, off the hook for poor execution of their roles within the Mass.  The Mass is the worship of God.  When Mass becomes the worship of man, we are going to have the problems expressed by 'I am not being fed."

Right Recipe...Right Ingredients

I like to cook.  I know you can have all the right ingredients and still have an inedible meal.  You have to follow the recipe.  The type of ingredients matter.  Say a recipe calls for strawberries and you use rotten strawberries, you have used what the recipe called for, but have managed to ruin the dish all the same. The same goes for how we worship.  I can have correct form and matter; that guarantees the Eucharist to be sure.  But our worship of God should be a like quality.  How we worship should be as best a reflection of the reality of the Real Presence.

After correct form and matter, we should have correct orientation.  The Mass is all about the worship of God.  We come first and foremost to give thanks to God.  The presence of God at Mass is not incidental: it is primary.  I wonder how many times I hear, "I am not being fed" is actually a belief that I am not coming into the presence of God.  It can be a bemoaning of a loss of transcendence.   Though, the transcendent God IS present in many ways at Mass (The Word, the Eucharistic Species, The People of God), it can be obscured by a misfocus or lack of focus. The presence can be obscured by too much a focus on the people.  The focus can be obscured by a lackadaisical mannerism or a 'going-through-the-motions' mentality where I am merely putting in my time...and as little time as I can get away with giving.

While the apex of the Mass is and always will be the Eucharist, the other ingredients are to be of a quality that befits the Eucharist.  The Church should connote an entrance into the presence of God.  It should be more than just a gathering space akin to an auditorium where we are only silent once the play has begun.

In entering into a Catholic Church, because of our belief in what the Blessed Sacrament is, there should be an acknowledgement and etiquette about how we respond and act.  When the building focuses too much on the people, it loses that sense of transcendence and becomes mundane and commonplace.  The sanctuary of the Church should be seen as the center of the throne room and not the stage for the play.

How the priest does the Mass and preaches matters.  If it did not, seminary training would be much lesser.  Because he must avoid being the center of attention (which is difficult) and seeing himself as a showman trying to sell the performance, he must remember he sets the tone for worship.  If he goes through the motions or rushes through it, he tells the people what he thinks is or is not going on.  The Church is specific in its rubrics (ways of doing things) and prayers in telling the priest what is expected and what the people who have come to the Eucharist have a right to.  

The homily does matter.  For better or worse, it is the principle point where the lay faithful are given an explication of the truths of the faith and reason to worship. The homily cannot be divorced from  Catholic teaching.  For better or worse, the homily exposes the spirituality and faith of the priest.  It can do grave damage if it becomes a place where he departs from the teachings of the Church. If it shows depth and faith, it encourages the faithful to seek the same.  No cleric who has been given charge of this task can believe it a throw-away task; it was through His proclamation of the Gospel that Christ first made known the will of the Father.  We clerics must take the same seriousness and depth in preaching and teaching that Our Lord did.   We are obligated to the truth.  We can poison the meal with deceit.

In as far as music goes, it does matter for two reasons.  First, music should facilitate our worship of God.  Too often, the lyrics point not to God but to just how special we think we are.  Sometimes the music can be so like the secular music that there is no difference between that and what is heard on the radio.  Recall, what is on the radio is meant to entertain.  Second, the purpose of sacred music isn't to entertain..it is to offer worship to God.  I am not at Mass to have things speak to me primarily...no, I am there at Mass to speak to God.  If the focus is off, then one will leave empty.  It is like the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.  The Pharisee came to tell God how great he was, the publican came to rely on how great God is. Only one walked out justified. (Luke 18:9-14)

All this said, it is still possible for a person to feel like they are not fed even though all the other ingredients are there.  What about them?  Let's just say you can't walk into a 4 star restaurant and want a Big Mac.

Focus, Focus, Focus

Throughout all of history, there has always been those who want to be entertained.  The focus is on them.  Mass must speak to their desires and proclivities.  It becomes style over substance. My disposition in coming in can be like bringing a vial of poison into the meal with me; taking that poison as a aperitif before the meal.  It is especially loathsome when a priest does this.  Remember, we priests are to be the servants of the Liturgy, not its master.

When the focus is primarily what I get out of Mass, then prepare to starve. The focus is not where it needs to be. The focus is to be on God.  The focus is God as He is, not as I want Him to be.  It is not the job of the Church to change itself to worship the God I want; it is the job of the Church to call us into worship of the God who is.  Were the congregation and the clergy to focus on this reality, were all aspects of the Mass to point to this reality, then I believe people would leave knowing they have been 'fed'.  For the Mass is always about the glorification of God and the sanctification of His people.  We get what we get as God's part in this exchange.  It is an exchange.  If we leave our part out, then we will leave Mass incomplete.  That, my friends, accounts much of the time for 'not being fed.'

The focus matters.  The focus matters for the priest.  The focus matters for the musicians and cantors.  The focus matters for the lectors, servers, and other persons assisting in Mass. The focus matters for every single of the lay faithful.   We should be assisting each other in maintaining that focus so the worship and glorification of God DOES take place and the glorification of HIs people DOES take place.  There will be times where the focus is bit harder, especially when toddlers are out of sorts (I am a big believer that they stay as the only way to train appropriate behavior is to follow through...and every parent has been there).  There will be times when the music is off or the preaching is off.  Nobody bats 1.000.  Nonetheless each of us is to use the grace of God to maintain that focus.

Some find this easier to do in the Ordinary Form and some in the Extraordinary Form.  I am not going to get in the weeds on this one, but only to say that both are recognized by the Church as legitimate.  Since it was the Apostles, specifically Peter and his successors, that were given the Keys to the Kingdom, I should very careful in attempting to commandeer that authority to suit my own proclivities. Both have rubrics and prayers that are not to be adjusted by the priest.  Both rituals should be adhered to with all due diligence. Focus matters.  Obedience matters.

The only time I would recommend fleeing a Church is if the priest is changing form and matter in such a way as to invalidate the Mass and prohibit the faithful in a state of grace from reception of the Blessed Sacrament. If that is happening, then indeed, the person is not being fed.  For the true food and drink Christ offers isn't splendid music, superb preaching, or such..it is and always will be His Body and Blood.